Jesus endorses adultery as a sin but goes further to consider the underlying attitude, which is lust. Lust is selfish and can cause great difficulty and needs to be dealt with radically.
Jesus endorses adultery as a sin but goes further to consider the underlying attitude, which is lust. Lust is selfish and can cause great difficulty and needs to be dealt with radically.
Hello and welcome to Series 4 and Episode 6. We're in the Sermon on the Mount and our topic today is ‘Overcoming Sexual Lust,’ a topic that Jesus deals with very clearly in the passage we're going to look at, which is Matthew 5: 27 to 30.
Introduction and Recap
Before we get to our passage, let's remind ourselves of the context and the things that we've spoken of as we've been describing the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus has established his ministry; he's got many followers and a big reputation; he's had many healings and deliverances; he's travelled far and wide in Galilee and has made his claims to be the Messiah clear in different ways and in different contexts. He started gathering his disciples together and that culminated in appointing twelve Apostles, which happened just before the Sermon on the Mount. Now the focus is on forming the community of disciples and identifying what Kingdom lifestyle really means and as we've gone through the Sermon on the Mount (which is recorded in Matthew 5 to 7, with a parallel passage in Luke 6) we see a variety of different themes.
We started with Luke 6, where Luke gives Jesus' teaching on Blessings and Woes, describing the difference between nominal faith and discipleship faith and the fact that disciples often experience opposition and suffering, and how to deal with that. Then we looked at the Beatitudes, the inner attitudes of Christian discipleship, as described at the beginning of Matthew 5. We went on to look at the topic of disciples being called salt and light, two images (or metaphors) for the Church. In our fourth episode, we talked about Jesus' teaching about the Old Testament Law and how he came to fulfil that Law; he didn't abolish the Old Testament but he fulfilled it and he brought in fresh commands which are the foundation for Christian discipleship. In our last episode, we saw the first of a number of ethical teachings that Jesus gives where he takes a statement from Judaism, or a teaching of the Old Testament, and he applies it more deeply to his disciples by looking more at the inner attitudes than just the outward actions. We looked, last time, at how Jesus reinterpreted the commandment to not murder, from the Ten Commandments, and we found that the root of it lay in issues of anger and judgementalism which had to be dealt with very radically in the Christian disciple.
The following teachings - including the one we are studying today - follow a similar pattern, where Jesus quotes something from the Old Testament, or from Jewish tradition, and then reinterprets it for Christian discipleship. We find in this way he is deepening the teaching and is avoiding the criticism that following him means you can do whatever you like. Jesus is saying, quite the contrary: to follow Jesus is to follow a very high moral code which reflects pure and righteous inner attitudes inside us. We looked closely at the issue of anger, last time, as a good example - a very important issue. Now we turn to the equally important issue of sexuality and sexual desires and Jesus is unambiguous and decisive in dealing with this issue; he's not embarrassed to talk about it and he's not embarrassed to be very clear. In his teaching he deploys a literary technique called hyperbole, where he uses an exaggerated statement in order to make a point. We're going to read the passage, then comment about the background in Judaism and then we'll try and see what applications we can make of this passage. Let's turn to Matthew 5: 27 - 30:
‘“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. (It's) better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. (It's) better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.”’Matthew 5:27-30, NIV
I told you he was very direct and very clear and he's using hyperbole (a form of exaggeration) in order to make a point - we'll come back to what that point is exactly and how we can apply it in a few minutes - but, in order to understand the context, we need to just go back a little and look at the background.
Old Testament Background
Jesus begins here, by quoting from the Ten Commandments. In the last session, I spent a time looking back into the Ten Commandments as recorded in the book of Exodus and we noticed that the last six commandments are focused on how society should function, with honouring parents as a starting point and then the commandment not to murder as the next one. In Exodus 20: 14, we have the very clear statement: ‘you shall not commit adultery.’ Then it goes on to talk about stealing, giving false testimony, and coveting (or desiring to have) your neighbours property. ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ What's the context of that originally? The Old Testament has a very clear picture about relationships between men and women, about sexuality and sexual life, but the starting point is not the Ten Commandments. In order to understand this commandment, I think we need to go back further to the Genesis account, which has two very important statements - both of which Jesus quotes at a later time in his ministry, as described in Matthew 19.
In Genesis 1: 27 describing the creation of mankind, it says: ‘God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.’ Humanity, unlike any other creature, male and female, men and women, are created in the image of God and that image is a reflection of some of the characteristics of God that are also shared by us (only some of them, of course) and the image also means having some of the responsibility that God gives us to look after the creation. One of the things about the image of God is, it is reflected in the complimentary existence of men and women together. Together they reflect the image of God. That togetherness is general, across humanity and all sorts of social relationships, but it's specifically experienced, in the most direct form, in the marriage relationship. Genesis 2: 24 says: ‘(That's) why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.’ Even in the creation, before Israel existed, before the journey of faith started, long before the Church, or Jesus Christ, we see that marriage (the joining together of one man and one woman in marriage) is God's ordained purpose for all of humanity; it shows something of his image and it is the context in which sexual relationships take place that are described in Genesis 2: 24 as ‘one flesh’ - the two people together physically, spiritually, mentally and emotionally in the relationship of marriage. This is God's ideal.
When the Law of Moses came along hundreds of years later, some particular commands about sexual relationships were established. They reflect the creational pattern that God intended, which he wanted to see lived out in his people Israel. He wanted them to live out the type of life that he planned for men and women, which was around monogamous marriage. In other words, one man and one woman, permanently, for life. That was God's ideal and plan and that was upheld by the Law of Moses. This meant that a number of other sexual activities were prohibited. For example, of particular importance, sex before marriage; secondly, homosexual relationships, which were not envisaged as godly in the Old Testament (not according to God's will), nor in the New Testament; and thirdly, and particularly relevant for our study now, adultery - the sexual activity between a married partner and somebody else outside that marriage. Adultery was forbidden. Polygamous marriages, where one man married more than one woman, were not in the original plan but were sometimes tolerated in the Old Testament but it was a lifelong partnership between one man and one woman that was envisaged by the Old Testament.
That is the context in which the Ten Commandments are given and in which they regulate the marriage relationship and this is to protect marriage, to make it strong and to ensure a good bond of relationship between the husband and the wife. Sexual unfaithfulness has a tremendously negative effect on that relationship. Adultery causes great difficulty and often produces the end of that relationship. Those were the Laws of Moses and Jesus is commenting on the Laws of Moses. Let's just give an example of adultery. The most famous and significant story told in the Old Testament about adultery is that of King David, the king of Israel, who (as is well known to those who study the Old Testament) despite being married already, falls into the temptation of desiring another woman, (her name is Bathsheba) who he catches sight of in another nearby house, near his palace, as she is bathing. He approaches her through a messenger and desires to have a sexual relationship with her, which leads to adultery, This leads to him murdering her husband in order to free her up to marry him. Then a prophet comes to David. God speaks to the prophet, Nathan, who then exposes this sin by actually identifying David as an adulterer saying, famously, “You are the man!” David then repents; he is deeply humiliated and realises he's made a terrible mistake - committing adultery and committing murder - and there are troubles in his family, with his older children, that continue for the rest of his life as a result of the fracture in his wider family, that is caused by this act of adultery. That story, in the middle of the Old Testament, concerning one of the great heroes of the Old Testament is an example of the significance of the issue of adultery. It created a very messy and complicated situation which David couldn't fully resolve for the rest of his life and many of us know that that's exactly what happens with adultery; it creates all sorts of complications - not just immediate difficulties but long-term difficulties and very often, the breakup of family units and great tragedy and suffering for third parties - such as the children of the marriage.
What is Sexual Lust?
That's the background and Jesus, here, obviously endorses the fact that to commit adultery is a sin - that more or less goes without saying. He endorses it - but he goes much deeper. This is exactly what he did when he was discussing murder and identifies anger and judgemental attitudes as a root problem. Here, he identifies the root problem of adultery as sexual lust. If a man looks at a woman lustfully, he is already beginning the process that could lead to physical adultery (a sexual relationship) with her - he's already embarking on a path of sinfulness. This is a far cry from there being a law about adultery: that man may not actually enact what he's thinking but the thought process is itself sinful and is dangerous for him and is completely contrary to Christian discipleship. It goes without saying that the focus here is on men - men were usually the initiators of these relationships in that culture - but what applies to men, you can also apply to women. The focus here, and the example Jesus gives, is of a man who initiates adultery by his own sexual lust. What is sexual lust? It's not admiration; it's desire - a desire for another person and to have a sexual relationship with them - and it's that lust that Jesus identifies as a fundamental problem which undermines relationships and causes the risk of adultery and other sexual sins. Jesus says that this is such a serious issue that serious remedies are needed. He's aware that human beings, men and women, are very prone to this particular sin: having a strong sexual desire for a person other than the person they're married to - assuming that they're married. Single people can also experience the same lust; they won't necessarily commit adultery in the sense of their own relationship, though they might do so because of a marriage relationship of the other person.
Use of Hyperbole
Verses 29 (and 30) are startling! It's hardly believable to read these words when you first read them. I remember the first time that I encountered this text. I took in a deep breath and wondered, “What on earth does it mean?” Then it was explained to me that Jesus sometimes uses a literary technique (and we'll see it several times in his teaching) or a way of speaking, that we call hyperbole. Hyperbole is a deliberate exaggeration to make a point. The exaggeration is that, you need to cut your eye out, or cut your hand off in order to stop this lust. The irony of this is very simple: if we take our right eye out we've still got our left eye; you can still see people with your left eye and you can still have that same lust! Jesus knows perfectly well that this is a hyperbolic statement; it's a hyperbole - it can't literally work. He doesn't intend us to imagine that we will do this literally because he knows that we will understand what he understood: that this is a way of expressing the issue. One eye is as good as two, in terms of being able to see things in general terms; one hand is as good as another. What is Jesus really saying here? The point he's making is very clear - in order to deal with lust we need to be really decisive, as decisive as the person who decides they're going to cut out one of their eyes or they're going to cut off one of their hands. That is a very powerful lesson for us. We're going to think of ways that we might enact this in Christian discipleship and be very practical about it in a few moments.
Why is Lust an Important Issue?
I want to go back for a moment, before we get there, and ask a more fundamental background question: why is lust such an important issue? This view of sexual desire and lust is completely contrary to the view of many cultures in the modern world, particularly in the Western world, where we have prioritised the individual and said to him or her, “You can desire whatever you want, you can have your own reality as long as you don't hurt other people. We'll give you as much freedom as you can, to create your own reality, to create your own relationships on your own terms.” With that framework of thinking, then this issue of sexual lust, or desire, becomes more or less a non-issue. Even in traditional societies, where marriage and family are still held in high esteem, many people will tolerate this sexual lust and it will be experienced as a reality by millions and millions of people in such societies. We can easily prove that. For example, in some very traditional societies in the Middle East, there is a huge use of Internet pornography. No one would approve of people carrying out the things that they are viewing on the Internet because of a traditional social model but there's a reality of something going on behind the scenes there. In the Western world, these things are much more open and on the surface, and people are given more freedom by society to make choices about relationships and sexual activity.
Why is this such an important issue? Why is Jesus highlighting it so decisively and clearly? Here are three reasons, I think, why lust is important. Number one, lust idolises sex above its created purpose. Its created purpose is very good: to provide the framework and the expression of intimacy within marriage, which is a truly wonderful thing, and to provide the framework for bringing children into this world. That's a very wonderful thing too. Sex is not designed to provide ultimate fulfilment for people in a random kind of way by desiring other people who we're not in a marriage relationship with. We modern people tend to expect sex to provide fulfilment for us in a very profound way and in a way that only God can provide for us - our relationship with God is the one which provides the deepest fulfilment for us and so sexual lust diverts us away from seeking God - and seeking relationships that, ultimately cannot satisfy will usually end up in disastrous and difficult circumstances that create even more pain and difficulty than we might have had at the very beginning. Lust idolises sex above its created purpose.
Secondly, lust focuses on ourselves - it's essentially selfish. The person you are desiring sexually, is viewed more as an object and less as an equal person. Sex within marriage, on the other hand, is designed primarily as a form of self-giving rather than self-fulfilment. Sexual lust, in adulterous and other uncommitted relationships, will always tend to focus on oneself and reinforce a certain selfishness within us.
Thirdly, lust - if followed through - leads us to be consumed with ourselves and, Jesus warns here, takes us down a road to hell. Every sin that causes us to be consumed by ourselves and to be focused in on ourselves is a real danger to us. The major sin we identified in the last episode - anger - has a similar effect. Anger can produce a huge amount of self-justification, self-pity and self-righteousness and it's the self who is at the centre of an angry person. The same can apply with sexual lust - if it's uncontrolled, it makes the self more and more important. All we're thinking about is satisfying our own needs or our own curiosity or own sexual desires. This is why it's an important issue; lust will undermine Christian discipleship.
Let me make some practical suggestions by way of reflections, as we come to the end of this episode. My question to you is: is sexual lust an issue for you? If so, the first thing to do is to face up to it and be completely honest with yourself. You may not have done that before and the opportunity of reading this episode, in this series on the life of Jesus, may be your opportunity - perhaps even for the first time - to address a hidden issue which we are talking about very openly. I'm the other side of a camera from you and I'm not invading your life, I'm not requiring anything of you personally. All I'm doing is bringing the Word of God to you and encouraging you to face up to this issue, if it's an issue for you, and to face up to the tremendous guilt that is associated with lust. This is a very remarkable fact that, even among secular people in modern Western society. There's still a great deal of guilt about their free and easy attitudes to sex and sexual desire but amongst Christians, that guilt is very specific because we know, deep-down, the truth. We know the truth of what Jesus has taught here and what the Bible teaches generally about sex.
Having faced up to it and having acknowledged the guilt, the really critical issue and the one that most people find hardest, is to take radical action. Notice the radical action implied here by this hyperbole of cutting off a hand, gouging out an eye. That's radical action, Jesus wants us to be as radical as those actions but find an appropriate way to be radical. One of the best ways of doing it is to develop accountability with a friend, or a church leader, or somebody you trust - a Christian brother or sister, someone of the same sex as you are - and share this issue with them and ask for them to walk the journey with you as you break bad habits - break habits of lust and also, very commonly, the habit of using the Internet availability of pornography to fuel this lust. This is a huge issue in the modern world and there are people there who can help you.
Let's comment, briefly, on the actual reality of adultery where this story started and, of course, some people have actually committed adultery and they're dealing with the consequences of that. That's beyond the scope of this talk to discuss in great detail. Adultery can cause tremendous brokenness in our lives but I want to leave you with a word of encouragement. King David, the wonderful King of Israel, who was flawed and weak in a number of areas despite being very gifted and talented, wrote, and this is for our encouragement I think, Psalm 51 after Nathan the prophet had confronted him with his sin. He wrote in Psalm 51 the following words:
‘Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin’Psalm 51:1-2, NIV
Then, Psalm 51: 10 - 13, his prayer - and this can be our prayer, if we have been involved in adultery, or if we are dealing with sexual lust:
‘10Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. 11(and) Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. 12Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. 13Then I will teach transgressors your ways, so that sinners will turn back to you.’Psalm 51:10-13
This prayer suggests that God is able to change our hearts and where we've been battling with this issue we can be cleaned; we can have a pure heart and our thoughts can be changed. That's a wonderful experience and I've seen many people who've been really liberated from this area; their lives so much richer, happier, more joyful, more balanced. They've got rid of that terrible guilt and that terrible sense of having secrets from people. The Beatitudes, Matthew 5: 8, one of the Beatitudes - and I'm using this to conclude: ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.’ God's desire for you is that you should have a pure heart in the area of sexuality and this teaching today is to encourage you, not to condemn you, but to encourage you, and to be completely honest with you about the significance and the importance of Jesus' teaching on this subject. It's not something we should avoid, it's something we should face and God blesses the pure in heart and when we have a purity of heart then our God-given imagination can turn to creative things and not the destructive power of sexual lust.
The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.
- In what way does Jesus’ teaching here conflict or agree with your society and culture?
- What three reasons are given for the importance of this teaching about lust?
- What is available in your country to help people overcome sexual sins. Pray for all those who struggle in this area.
- Jesus uses hyperbole here. How is this tool so effective?